Wrestling woes with COVID-19


Paul Collins

Wrestlers on a Zoom workout

Having won team state four times since 2009, the wrestling team is one of the strongest at OPRF. Unfortunately, with wrestling being a high-contact and indoor sport, the pandemic poses many challenges to this season.
In October, the Illinois High School Association board voted to move the wrestling season from winter (November to February) to summer (May to June) “due to the fact that wrestling is currently categorized as a ‘high-risk’ sport under the IDPH (Illinois Department of Public Health) and Governor’s COVID Guidance,” said athletic director John Stelzer.
He continued, “There are three categories: Low-risk, Moderate-Risk and High-risk. At this time, only those sports that are categorized as “Low-Risk” (e.g. Track and Field) can operate in a full season and have competitions against other schools. The hope of the IHSA is that when we get to May/June, wrestling may be categorized as Low-Risk by that time.”
A summer season means students will be wrestling after the school year ends, and seniors will be wrestling after they graduate. The IDPH suggests that high-risk sports, such as wrestling, only hold non-contact practices and trainings.
According to a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, OPRF wrestling coach Paul Collins said, “How our state is handling things, was in order for us to have some semblance of a season and real practices, we were going to have to push it as far as possible…I think (this) gives our seniors and our program the best chance to have a season.”
Because wrestlers have the option to practice year-round, OPRF coaches have been holding Zoom workouts since April. This school year, the team has been able to meet at RC Training and Fitness to practice and lift weights in small groups, while continuing the online workouts. The coaches occasionally let athletes practice wrestling with each other.
“We wear masks and try to stay relatively far apart. At the gym we sanitize everything after we use it,” said senior varsity wrestler Connor Nagela. However, when wrestling, athletes find it hard to wear a mask while getting enough oxygen.
As to whether the season will happen at all, wrestlers are unsure, yet hopeful. “At the moment, I’m expecting for it not to happen,” said senior varsity wrestler Zavien Stewart. “But I’m hoping.”
Missing out on meets has encouraged some to improve their wrestling skills individually. “I don’t think I’ve ever watched so many wrestling videos (as I have) this year,” said Stewart. “Not just my own videos but also college level, international level wrestling. That’s how much I’m missing it. And I’m still taking notes on things I can do from it.”
Over this year’s Thanksgiving break, wrestlers had the rare opportunity to fully enjoy the holiday celebrated by eating as much as possible. “Normally this time of year…especially (Thanksgiving) week I’d be cutting weight,” said Nagela. “So I wouldn’t have a huge Thanksgiving meal.”
For seniors like Stewart and Nagela who are hoping to wrestle in college, the pandemic is also changing the way they communicate with college coaches (they have had to meet over video calls rather than in person), but it hasn’t changed their plans to eventually wrestle on a college team.
“If I do get to wrestle, I’m hoping some coaches might actually be able to show up to a couple matches,” said Stewart. However, by April, most students will have already decided on a college; “I don’t really have a chance to wrestle the season and make an impact on a coach’s mind,” said Nagela.
Despite the disappointments, both wrestlers recognize that OPRF coaches “are always trying to protect us from getting the virus and make sure no one gets sick, while still operating the best we can,” said Stewart. “So I think our coaches have done a good job at that. And I thank them for that because I haven’t gotten the virus yet.”